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Author Topic: To the Lungs of the Earth  (Read 23397 times)

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Offline Rooi Wolf

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Re: To the Lungs of the Earth
« Reply #120 on: April 04, 2020, 08:21:53 pm »
Absoluut classy!

I've been to many of the places you write about in my work capacity, Kinshasa, Brazzaville, Pointe Noir, Kabinda. But have never seen it through the eyes of a fellow biker.

Thanks for a brilliant read.

Offline Tom van Brits

Re: To the Lungs of the Earth
« Reply #121 on: April 05, 2020, 02:15:42 am »
Absoluut classy!

I've been to many of the places you write about in my work capacity, Kinshasa, Brazzaville, Pointe Noir, Kabinda. But have never seen it through the eyes of a fellow biker.

Thanks for a brilliant read.

Ditto  :thumleft:

Offline NiteOwl

Re: To the Lungs of the Earth
« Reply #122 on: April 07, 2020, 12:41:21 pm »
Thanks for the positive comments, it makes the effort worthwhile.

Thanks for taking the time to do this write up.  The Congo is one of those places that holds a mysterious fascination for me.  But, after reading all this, I am not so sure if it is worth the time and trouble to go there.

Life is a tradeoff. Is it about the journey or the destination? Bucket list item? Childhood fantasy that needs closure…?

I’ve hinted in previous posts how this route evolved, but let’s just say a seed got planted in my early childhood when I got this book…
« Last Edit: April 07, 2020, 11:26:32 pm by NiteOwl »
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Offline eSKaPe

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Re: To the Lungs of the Earth
« Reply #123 on: April 07, 2020, 01:14:45 pm »
Excellent RR
Many more roads to travel
"Of all the paths you take in life, make sure a few of them are dirt' John Muir

Offline EssBee

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Re: To the Lungs of the Earth
« Reply #124 on: April 07, 2020, 01:27:03 pm »
Simply brilliant RR, thank you for going to the trouble to share!

Offline JMOL

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Re: To the Lungs of the Earth
« Reply #125 on: April 07, 2020, 02:29:14 pm »
Thanks for sharing such a wonderful RR with us.

To be honest - I read each and every sentence / word - I was hooked from the start.  Even followed on Google Maps  :deal:   :biggrin: 

Cannot wait for the rest to follow.  :thumleft:
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Offline Berden

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Re: To the Lungs of the Earth
« Reply #126 on: April 07, 2020, 08:01:11 pm »
Prachtig verslag. Ga door !



Offline NiteOwl

Into the Lungs of the Earth
« Reply #127 on: April 08, 2020, 12:50:55 pm »
The next morning everything is covered in dew and we have lots of visitors lapping it up! Fortunately, no mosquitos here.

Shortly after resuming our ride, we pass the main gate to Odzala, and more police checks. Progress is smooth- they’re still setting up shop. The air is  deliciously cool so early in the morning.

This gives some idea of the density of the bush here…

…fed by all that natural water.

By the time we stop for coffee at an MTN cell tower, Ouesso is only half an hour away.

As we get closer to the town, we note palm trees on either side of the road. Only later do we learn that they are not indigenous, but were planted here by ATAMA Plantations for the establishment of a palm oil industry that should have generated thousands of jobs.

In reality they appear to have been used as a smokescreen for the illegal harvesting of timber instead.

Rusting earthmoving machinery is parked in a deserted compound on the outskirts of the town and the bungalows are boarded up. Probably leftovers from ATAMA’s forestry operations, as the Chinese would have used their own blue trucks instead of Caterpillars for the road construction. Whoever the owners may be, there’s a few million Rands worth of machinery getting covered by weeds here.

At the turnoff to Sembé there’s another police checkpoint, but after making a show of checking our documents we’re allowed to move on. There's a Total filling station on Ouesso's main street, but we carry on to look for money first- we're platsak!

A welcome sight greets our eyes within a stone’s throw from the pumps- an Ecobank with an ATM booth outside. It’s hot out in the street, but the booth is air-conditioned! We take our time inside, enjoying the cool air, until a teller comes to check if we’re OK.

We’re close to our destination for the day, but from here our maps are sketchy, and T4A is lost. We need to get to the Wildlife Conservation Society’s (WCS) camp at Bomassa, supposedly only 100km further. I have a GPS coordinate, but there are no road signs around here. We call up our contact, Zanné, who is the media consultant for their Congo programme.

She’s South African, and really organised: she sends us a map via WhatsApp and then patiently explains the route that we have to take through the forest roads. Their camp is on the edge of the Nouabale-Ndoki National Park, and they can provide accommodation.

Encouraged, we stock up on cash and splash out for our lunch at the shops down the street. They even have yoghurt! Then it’s back up the road for fuel before coasting downhill to the Sangha River. Another biggie.

It turns out that we need to go through Customs first, even though the opposite side is still part of the Congo Republic (and the same province). Their office is up the hill overlooking the ferry operation, and our passport numbers are copied into a book. There’s no stamping and no payment is required.

Back at the ferry point, we get directed to the front of the ferry, next to a police Land Cruiser. The cops are friendly enough, and don’t mind my camera (I've become rather katvoet after the experience in Brazzaville). An entire horse and trailer, as well as a truck and some pedestrians follow us on board. A young fellow comes round to collect the transit fee: it's CFA 5000 per bike (R250 for both).

The Sangha River forms the border between Cameroon and the Congo north of Ouesso, and between the Central African Republic (CAR) and Cameroon north of Bomassa. From Ouesso it flows southeast, to join up with the Congo River some 400 km south of here. Infrastructure is a problem in the Congo: there’s no bridge here, even though it’s a major thoroughfare to Yaoundé, the capital of the CAR, 500km to the north.

Due to the state of the roads, most goods are transported along the rivers in pirogues. The only railway line in the country runs from Brazzaville to Pointe Noire in the south.

As soon as the ferry is loaded up, a tug pulls up alongside to nudge us across the current. It doesn't take long and, being at the front, we get off first.

We ride up the embankment to take in the new surroundings. It’s a forest, with a decently graded road straight ahead. It seems like a good idea to get a move on while the track is clear, but the Police bakkie soon roars past in a cloud of dust.

We reach Pokola 40 km later, where we have to turn off to enter the forest reserve. The police manning the boom are quite friendly, even giving us a bottle of very welcome water. Customs across the road is less affable, and they want another tithe (CFA 5000 per bike) before we may enter.

And so we are let into a concession of 1.4 million hectares of rainforest, the proverbial Lungs of the Earth. It is operated by CIB (Congolaise Industrielle des Bois), a wholly owned subsidiary of Olam International (Singaporean, not Chinese!), a global food and agricultural business. For sustainable logging, trees apparently get felled selectively here instead of clearing large swathes.

We take the first turn easily enough, but two wrong attempts take a while before it’s obvious that we are not converging towards our waypoint. The logging company operating here has actually done a great job of maintaining the roads and we gain confidence as the canopy flits by.

This forest covers a vast area, comparable in size to the Odzala reserve. Kabo, the next village, is the best part of 100 km from where we entered in Pokola. It's enjoyable riding, although you have to watch out for the camber and the damp patches.

There’s a T-junction, with the village (and port) to the left and the road…er track, to Bomassa to the right. Unaware of Kabo’s importance, we turn right. It starts well enough and we pause for a drink.

A few km further the road climbs and is heavily eroded. A local man on a Chinese bike stops to warn us that the track ahead is dangereuse. Fortunately it’s dry, but I can see that this won’t be so easy after some rain (no time for pics here). Progress slows down a lot but finally we reach the home stretch and turn into Bomassa.

Which is actually just a small village; some kids direct us around the corner to the WCS camp.

The sun is setting over the Sangha river when we finally pull into the camp. We find Zanné enjoying a sundowner over by the river and she introduces us to Emma, who has come over to visit from the WCS law enforcement office in Ouesso.

We’d originally opted to stay over at the village, but the temptation of a clean room, hot shower and cold beer is too much. We fetch our luggage, plop down next to Emma and unwind. Cheers!

The WCS camp lies between the forest reserve and the edge of the Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park; it’s used as a base by the WCS staff, park rangers and various researchers. They’re an eclectic bunch and arrive in dribs and drabs as the night falls. Most have got a PhD or are working towards one, and this kind of setup is their bread and butter.

We get introduced to all kinds of nationalities: Camilla, who is French and heads the financial department, is here with her husband Rayo, who is Colombian. 

The Belgian director of the camp, Eric, is away on business but his wife and children are about. Emma’s just gotten a puppy that keeps the kids entertained. It makes us long for our own dogs back home with the house-sitters!

Terry hails from Arizona and is director of research with a longstanding interest in primates. She’s also managing the Elephant Listening Project (ELP), run by Cornell University, that uses acoustic arrays to track the movement and calls of forest elephants. It’s also used as an anti-poaching tool, as it can detect and locate gunshots.

Merel is Dutch and has come over from Pokola, where her partner (a doctor) works at a hospital run by CIB, the concession holders of the forest we’ve ridden through. They administer vaccinations and contraceptives, provide treatment for malaria and HIV, and also operate a clinic at Kabo.

Zanné’s boyfriend, Forrest (a fresh-faced Welshman), arrives late from the airstrip at Kabo after a surveillance flight over the park in the WCS plane. No poachers today.

It’s all very sociable with the beer flowing freely once a fire is lit. Supper is a buffet of rice and beans, potatoes, cabbage salad, bread and chocolate spread from Cameroon. And some Dutch delicacies from Merel.

It’s a pleasant change from our lonely travels of the last three weeks.
« Last Edit: April 11, 2020, 08:06:33 pm by NiteOwl »
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Offline Kaboef

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Re: To the Lungs of the Earth
« Reply #128 on: April 08, 2020, 09:20:42 pm »

I have said it many times on this thread, but allow me to say it again:  Fantastic.

This a part of Africa nobody I know ever visits, and I know nothing about it.
Reading this report had broadened by mind and I am constantly scrolling around on Google Earth to look for the places you mention.

Awesome. Just awesome. Thank you so much for posting this report.

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Offline D man

Re: To the Lungs of the Earth
« Reply #129 on: April 09, 2020, 01:25:50 pm »
To Mr and Mrs NiteOwl, what an epic trip and stunning ride report. I always have such admiration for anyone travelling into the less obvious parts of Africa. It takes massive kahunas. Respect!
A man's nature and way of life are his fate and that which he calls his fate is but his disposition.

Offline Amsterdam

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Re: To the Lungs of the Earth
« Reply #130 on: April 09, 2020, 01:31:39 pm »
Thanks for the positive comments, it makes the effort worthwhile.

Thanks for taking the time to do this write up.  The Congo is one of those places that holds a mysterious fascination for me.  But, after reading all this, I am not so sure if it is worth the time and trouble to go there.

Life is a tradeoff. Is it about the journey or the destination? Bucket list item? Childhood fantasy that needs closure…?

I’ve hinted in previous posts how this route evolved, but let’s just say a seed got planted in my early childhood when I got this book…

Some 40 plus years ago, when we were planning our trip, I often looked at that big green space on the Michelin maps of Africa and wondered why we didn't plan our route to take us through there.  So yes, an unfulfilled fantasy I suppose.
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Offline NiteOwl

Up the Sangha River
« Reply #131 on: April 10, 2020, 08:14:02 pm »
   Some background on the Wildlife Conservation Society: The WCS is an American organisation founded more than a century ago to preserve wildlife and their habitats. Unsurprisingly, one of its founding members was Teddy Roosevelt. It is well funded, with an annual budget of more than $300M, and operates worldwide in 84 locations (31 in Africa), employing some 4300 people. For comparison, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), which was only founded in 1961 and has a similar budget and reach, employs nearly double the number of people (but does not run any zoos).

In this region, the WCS is focussed on trying to eliminate poaching, the bushmeat trade and the illegal export of exotic animals as pets. It’s a battle that is hard to win in a desperately poor developing country.

The WCS camp is the base for the game rangers that protect the animals in the park. It’s a war, just like in Kruger. Every morning starts with a parade where the day’s tasks are assigned by the camp director after a flag-raising ceremony. We’re asked not to take photographs, as they don’t want the rangers to be identified… so here is an incognito picture from WCS’ website.

We’re greeted by a downpour the next morning, and get told that it’s the start of the short rainy season. It ends as suddenly as it started. My mind wanders to that last bit of road we covered yesterday.  :o

We get shown around the camp by Zanné after breakfast and there’s a surprise around the back of the workshops: African Grey parrots (sorry about the poor pic, but the mesh is dense and people aren’t allowed inside the cage).

But they’re not pets, quite the opposite in fact: these are birds confiscated from poachers and they are being rehabilitated before release back into the wild. The parrots get caught by luring them with a feticheur, a parrot which has had all its flight feathers chopped off (or whose wings have been dislocated). Its noisy calls then attract wild parrots, who sit down on glue-covered branches – and get rounded up by the poachers.

We’re told that there are four varieties of apes in the trees around the camp, but we saw nothing last night and it’s not much better today. What we do learn over the next few days is that one’s attention needs to be high up in the trees in this region; not at ground level as we are used to for game spotting down south.

We had arranged with Zanne to leave our bikes at the WCS camp before we left home. She had been apprehensive at the time, expecting us to arrive on big 1200s. But now that she has seen our very modest 250s, she directs us to the back of her office and suggests we park the bikes on the porch next to the camp’s Chinese Bushlander. There’s plenty of space, and we can leave the riding gear, camping stuff and other things we won’t need inside the office. Great!

We’ve arranged for a pickup to our final destination at ten. It’s going to be by boat, and up the Sangha River. Our skipper is Blaise, and he moors at the WCS “wharf” on time. Despite having slept over in Bomassa village last night, his uniform is crisp and clean. We say our goodbyes and pack our much-reduced luggage on board.

And so our holiday starts. We are in the middle of the Sangha Trinational protected area, which encompasses three adjoining national parks straddling the border area between Cameroon (Lobeke NP), the Central African Republic (Dzanga-Ndoki National Park), and Congo (Nouabale-Ndoki NP)- where we are now. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

We finally get to spot some wildlife- a sitatunga running along the sandy riverbank. It's an antelope very similar to the lechwe found in the Okavango.

We pass the sawmill at Libongo, marked by a mountain of sawdust next to the river.

We have to go about 120 km up the river to get to the Dzanga-Sangha Special Reserve, which is in the Central African Republic; yet another border crossing plus visa away. Fortunately Blaise is well versed in the ritual and although tedious (different landings for immigration & customs, visa and finally police) the process is fairly painless. All the officials have a formal stamp and rudimentary offices, but no uniform. It looks like our fees (about R1000 per head in total) make up most of their salary.

The boat is still new and despite slowing down for sandbanks every so often (“the water level is very low”) we rip through the water at 40 km/h on the straight bits!

No local can afford this sort of speedy transport, though. It’s all hand-carved boats and paddles for the villagers and fishermen. Everybody’s very friendly- no doubt more because of Blaise than because of us.

The youngsters seem to get the second-hand canoes…

WCS packed a light lunch of buns filled with cucumber and mayonnaise that we finished after the last stop and stamp routine. Half an hour later we finally pull up at Sangha Lodge: the end of our trip. Some fishermen next to our landing are busy mending their nets.

The fuel and water tanks are offloaded across a floating ramp…

… which leads up to the dining/ bar area where a very welcome welcoming juice  awaits us. We get introduced to Tim and Saartje, a Belgian couple who manage the Lodge.

We get shown to our hut, which has its own bathroom despite the wooden floor. Two cool bottles of filtered water are on the table- nice touch!

The hut is built from rough-cut planks (no guessing where that comes from) and the roof is woven from leaves. A large double bed, draped with a mosquito net fills much of the room.

There’s a small research hut at the high end of the compound, where we get introduced to Dr Maja Gudehus. She rehabilitates rescued animals, like this genet. My wife is in her element- she loves animals and this part of the trip is for her (really had to work for it, though).

After being shown around, we get left to cool our heels in the hut till dinner time. There’s no cider in the bar, but the beer and gin & tonic go down well with the salted fried banana chips that the kitchen has rustled up. They become our firm favourite during our stay here. Outside is a deck with a great view over the Sangha River.

At supper we meet Tamar Cassidy, and her son Alon, the owners of Sangha Lodge. They’re South African, too, and her husband, Rod, is away on business back home. We’ve corresponded by a bit of email and a WhatsApp call when we put this trip together, after a work colleague made me aware of this remote location. We’re probably the first visitors since Kingsley Holgate to ride up for a  visit to the lodge (most visitors fly in from Bangui), and Rod has given us a special rate for our stay. Even so, we can only afford three days here.

We learn that Sangha Lodge used to be a hunting lodge, and the Cassidys bought it in 2008 to develop it as a sustainable tourist destination. It hasn’t been an easy ride for them: there are no shops around here, and hardly any roads worthy of the name. Most supplies have to be flown in from Bangui, at huge expense. This is the beating heart of Africa without a five star sugar-coating, run by people who are in this business for all the right reasons and who are not scared to get their hands dirty. Or of getting malaria: everyone seems to have had it at least once.

We turn in for an early night; tomorrow we’re going on our first outing into the adjacent park. Like proper tourists.
« Last Edit: April 11, 2020, 08:04:07 pm by NiteOwl »
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Offline dw1

Re: To the Lungs of the Earth
« Reply #132 on: April 10, 2020, 08:42:20 pm »
Fantastic report. thnx for putting so much effort in to show us a part of the world most will never see.
Kudos for having the guts to embark on such a trip into the real unknown.
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Offline NiteOwl

Red Ivory
« Reply #133 on: April 25, 2020, 09:19:54 pm »
Today we are visiting the Dzanga-Sangha Special Reserve, which covers some 680 000 hectares and was only proclaimed 30 years ago, like the Sangha Tri-national park south of here. The Reserve is located near the southern tip of the Central African Republic (CAR) and its eastern boundary is also the border with the Congo Republic.

It also happens to be the home range of a few thousand members of the local Baka pygmy tribe. Some of them still live deep in the forest, but most live in villages around Bayanga. They are hunter-gatherers and subsistence farmers and most are unemployed, but they are gradually being drawn into the tourism industry as guides, trackers, drivers… Sangha Lodge has become a major employer in the region and also assists with schooling.

As in the case of Angola, Lonely Planet offers just a couple of pages on the CAR; Wikipedia does a better job of it. This is a landlocked country, about half the area of South Africa, with grasslands in the north and rainforests in the south. It is sparsely populated and has considerable natural resources, but is amongst the poorest countries in the world, surviving mainly on foreign aid.

Most transport is done along the waterways, which also provide hydroelectric power. Despite the lack of industrial pollution, life expectancy is severely limited by tropical diseases and poor medical facilities- only 53 years or so. Not an ideal retirement destination.

Like most former French colonies, the CAR has also had its fair share of coups d’etat; remember “emperor” Jean-Bédel Bokassa, who made Idi Amin look like an amateur? The most recent religious and ethnic civil war that started in 2012 is still not resolved; sporadic attacks continue. Fortunately, mostly in the north of the country.


It’s an early breakfast of fruit, rolls and coffee for us. Tim and Saartje are joining us on the trip as they have not had the opportunity to go out to the park yet.

Our transport is a Toyota Hilux with a double cab. It’s seen better days- a plastic sheet has replaced the roof lining, some lights on dash doggedly stay red and the keys are more for decoration than necessity.

Our driver is pretty skilled at navigating these slippery two-tracks and manages to avoid sliding into the deep ruts worn out by prior traffic. The bush extends right up next  to the tracks and the leaves and twigs slap over the roof as we pass.

A couple of villages line the road to Bayanga. The huts are made from wood and clay, the roofs from leaves. (sorry, too difficult to photograph with the bouncing on these roads). The local airstrip is also nearby, but we turn off before it.

The first stop is at the Dzanga-Sangha Park reception. The lodge has arranged the bookings and tickets, so it’s a quick process. And there are no other tourists around. Given its remoteness, it’s not surprising that this area only sees about 100 visitors per year.

A couple of the park’s guides hop aboard and we’re off to the bai- a local term for a clearing in the forest. It’s a bouncy ride through more thick vegetation, after which the last few kilometres are covered on foot, because of all the standing water.


We end up on a raised platform overlooking the clearing. Apart from the forest elephants, there are also forest buffaloes (with narrower horns to move through the trees more easily) and bongos. There are also lots of sweat bees making a proper nuisance of themselves.


Forest buffaloes:

The elephant found in Central Africa are different to those found in Southern Africa [L] and India [R].

For one thing forest elephants are smaller, their tusks are darker and relatively long: this is highly prized red ivory, and the reason why these elephants are also under threat. Here’s a big bull which has just taken a mud bath, leaving him distinctly yellow-looking.

Here's is a sample of the dung produced by these elephants. Very different from the bristly piles of African elephants.

The elephants congregate here to dig up salt, which they do by loosening the soil with their tusks and blowing up the water with their trunks.

The youngsters follow their mothers to learn how it’s all done.

Between the puddles are some woolly-necked storks, a grey heron, yellow-billed egret and a hamerkop foraging for food and sunning themselves.

We get to chat a bit with Tim & Saartje whilst ogling the animals and learn that they are overlanders who hit the pause button for a year on their Africa trip, to earn some money before continuing on their journey with the bakkie they bought back in SA.

Although the view from the platform is great, there’s only so many ways you can photograph elephants and after lunch the sweat bees seem to think we owe them some too. It’s time to head back to the camp.

This time, I sit on the back of the bakkie with our guides. I can’t help noticing the lack of toenails- worn away by walking through all the undergrowth?

We almost make it back without mishap when a tyre bursts within a kilometre from the lodge. It’s pretty worn, and the spare is hardly in better shape. I’m not too familiar with Toyota bakkies, but I’m sure there are meant to be a pair of brake shoes around that hub- my respect for our driver grows!

The temperature around the equator is actually not that high, with little variation through the seasons and even through day and night. The humidity, however, makes the perceived temperature rather higher and sweaty.

It’s an ideal breeding ground for mosquitos, army ants, butterflies… and all those nasty tropical diseases that conspire to lower the life expectancy of the people here.

Back in camp we have some time to clean up before supper. The wind builds up rapidly, bending the trees and within minutes the rain is pelting down. It lasts less than an hour before it stops, but the sky remains overcast. This could disrupt tomorrow’s plans.

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Offline Kaboef

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Re: To the Lungs of the Earth
« Reply #134 on: April 25, 2020, 10:23:15 pm »
What a trip

Did you take malaria tablets? Any other precautions?

The greenery is unbelievable.
Did you see any carnivores or apes?
And Saint Attila raised the hand grenade up on high, saying, "O Lord, bless this thy hand grenade, that with it thou mayst blow thine enemies to tiny bits, in thy mercy."


Offline Tom van Brits

Re: To the Lungs of the Earth
« Reply #135 on: April 26, 2020, 03:00:37 am »
Amazing, keep sharing please!

Offline Berden

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Re: To the Lungs of the Earth
« Reply #136 on: April 26, 2020, 11:03:55 am »
Super  !!

Offline NiteOwl

Carte Jaune
« Reply #137 on: April 27, 2020, 06:40:09 pm »

Did you take malaria tablets? Any other precautions?

The only vaccination requirement for entry into the equatorial countries is yellow fever, but only the DRC police bothered to check (only once) our carte jaune.

HOWEVER, when we went for the shot, the doctor recommended a polio booster (the childhood vaccination wears off after ten years!) as well as a meningitis vaccination. Bearing in mind the difficulty of getting medical treatment in this area, we ended up as very good customers since the risk just wasn’t worth it.

Ditto for malaria, which is endemic in this region, for which we took Malanil/ Mozitec tablets every day from our entry into Angola until our exit (when we had run out anyway). Everyone at Sangha Lodge had already contracted malaria multiple times as the prophylaxis can be hard on your kidneys (never mind your wallet), so it’s better to treat the fever when you get it than trying to prevent it. They said recovery after chemotherapy (with Coartem, I think) took about two days.

We did get stung by lots of mosquitos and other insects, but fortunately did not even catch a cold on the entire trip.
« Last Edit: May 02, 2020, 01:56:58 pm by NiteOwl »
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Offline NiteOwl

Primarily Primates
« Reply #138 on: May 02, 2020, 03:34:36 pm »
Today is yesterday’s tomorrow. It’s overcast, but we’re going on another outing.

It is considerably further to today’s destination, and last night’s storm has blown quite a few trees over. Most forest trees here seem to have fibrous roots and the forest floor is soft, muddy and covered with decaying leaves and branches. Soon enough we have to stop as the track is blocked by some saplings, and our BaAka  guides jump off the bakkie and spring into action. Every man in this region (from Angola on, actually) seems to own a machete and they deftly hack an opening through the green curtain blocking our way.


All clear!

There’s another visit to the park offices for permits and to pick up our guides for the day. There’s a striking wood carving outside, cut from one of the abundant logs.

Further on, some small trees have fallen across the track, which clearly does not see a lot of traffic.

The trees are pretty tall around these parts:

Our next obstacle is a huge tree that has toppled over, obliterating the tracks. For this job, machetes are useless but there’s a super long chainsaw that gets fired up to cut this into manageable pieces.

It will take a while to cut and clear the tree, but we are only about a kilometre from the camp we are heading for. The lunch boxes and water flasks get distributed and we continue on foot.

Soon enough we reach a clearing in the forest. There’s a cool, clean waiting area in the middle.

After dropping off the foodstuffs, we have to get sanitised to prevent the transfer of human bacteria and viruses (refer previous post on ebola epidemic). The shoe dip is a bit like the procedure applied in Botswana to counter the spread of foot and mouth disease.

After signing the register, we’re off for a few kilometres through more wetlands and narrow footpaths until we meet up with trackers for the last stretch to guide us through the thick bush and see this:

Closer …

Closest …

It’s Makumba, the patriarch of this gorilla troop. When the males get to thirteen years or so, their backs go grey and these are called silverbacks. Silverbacks compete for females and will take on any challengers for the mating rights, but tend to be quite caring fathers. These are Western Lowland gorillas, a species slightly smaller than Mountain gorillas of Rwanda and rather more abundant. Adult males are considerably larger than females, weighing up to 200 kg.

Although gorillas are primarily vegetarian, Western Lowland gorillas also eat ants and termites, breaking open their nests to eat the larvae.

Fortunately this troop is not aggressive; they pretty much ignore our presence.

Due to the low nutritional value of the greenery that comprises most of their diet, they need to eat more than a tenth of their body weight every day and therefore they move around a lot. Seen from below, they have a rather prominent snout that isn't obvious from a full frontal view.

Most of the troop is up in the trees picking fruit. To get downstairs they don’t bother with climbing too much, but just drop down and use the branches to slow their fall.

We’re not allowed to go closer than 10 metres. We’re also supposed to wear face masks, like the trackers, but they have run out so our Buffs will have to do.

Since we can’t get too close and the gorillas keep moving about, we have to peer through the leaves from different angles whilst following them to see what’s going on. To complicate photography further, the tree canopy blocks the daylight, making for slow shutter speeds and high ISO numbers, as flashguns are not allowed. And if the gorillas turn their back on you, you aren't supposed to try to get their attention for a decent mug shot...

It’s late in the morning already, and this female is getting ready for a siesta. Gorillas need a lot of sleep: about twelve hours a day.

Finally a clear line of sight and a memorable, dreamy facial expression.

In order to habituate gorillas to people, trackers initially follow them around at a distance, gradually building up trust. This takes two or three years, after which tourists can gradually be introduced to view these amazing primates.

Only two people are allowed to approach the troop at a time, so Tim, Saartje and Birgit had to wait their turn and we get led back to the camp while they view the gorillas.

The trackers following the gorillas work in relays to stay with the troop, so they have to camp out here for extended periods. Tourists like us provide a welcome opportunity to show off their charges and make a few bucks from donations. From the visitors book it’s obvious that that does not happen very often. In fact, half the cost of tracking and protecting the gorillas is carried by the WWF; the remainder is covered by the park fees from the 500-odd visitors that arrive here annually. It's a far cry from the 15 000 visitors that Rwanda managed to attract to their Mountain gorillas in 2019 (for a fee many times higher).

After lunch we pack up to board the bakkie, which managed to drive around the fallen tree. On the way back, we get a live demo of freehand plank-cutting in the forest. Stihl seems to be the chainsaw brand of choice here.

By the time we reach the Lodge, it’s nearly time for supper, which is interrupted by Alon arriving with the weekly supplies. He’s been driving all day to collect it from near the Cameroon border, where the driver of the delivery truck lost control on the slippery road and rolled it. We were to see some of that first-hand on our way back.
Do it before you die!

Offline David.H

Re: To the Lungs of the Earth
« Reply #139 on: May 04, 2020, 01:46:24 pm »
Thanks, a great read!